I count, therefore I am

I’m morbidly fascinated by this site: The Quantified Self. It promotes a future age of quantification, where close attention to a quantified self will reveal who we are. As someone who works with life writing, it’s a treasure trove of auto/biographical possibilities. The traces of selves I find here are quite phenomenal.

And as someone interested in the stories that bodies might tell, well, there’s no end to the possibilities here. There’s  an almost infinite list of body trackers. Most, of course, track the usual suspects: exercise and calories…but there are others – sugar intake, alcohol consumption, fetal heartbeat, menstrual cycle, emotional states, sleep cycles, productivity…and more.

At a simple level, I suppose we’ve done this forever. How many of us have counted calories, or checked nutritional values, or counted how many steps we climb every day? How many of us have spent gleeful childhood hours counting clouds or stars or pebbles on a beach? Or ants? And how many of us continue to track our lives using social media like facebook and twitter (both also listed in Quantified Self’s list of tracking possibilities…)?

We count, therefore we are?

But I am also creepily disturbed by this. If we count, therefore we are, then what happens to that which we cannot count?

And how do we actually count – as humans – if we cannot be counted? Can every part of us be counted? That was the mystery that informed the great Encyclopédie of the eighteenth century: codification. Everything in its place and a place for everything. It fits with our contemporary North American ethos: clutter control, self organization and a desire for ‘fact’ and that which seems to be easily interpretable.

Numbers would appear to provide us with this comfort and this certainty. They’re something to hold onto. Something that appears to be ‘real’ – we count, therefore we are.

But what does this mean for the written life – the life made text – when it exists only in numbers? And can numbers capture the essence of the human?

Body scans. Blood pressure cuffs. Xray machines. Sleep monitors. Ultrasound machines. Thermometers. We have the technology to measure every element of our body. But what if we’ve missed something?


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